In the wake of the tragedy in Alabama, there has as expected been a lot of discussion on the internet about the nature of the shooting and its implications. In some sense, my impression is that the case has become a Rorschach test for lots of people, and they’ve seen reflected in it their own concerns or political crusades. In that spirit, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the incident and my impressions of some of the other commentary out there.
To summarize, last Friday afternoon at the University of Alabama in Huntsville three professors were killed and three others seriously wounded when a shooter opened fire at a biology faculty meeting. Biology professor Amy Bishop was taken into custody and charged with murder.
The “twist” to the story is that Bishop had been denied tenure in April, and had appealed the decision. The appeal was turned down on Friday, and this decision is what evidently precipitated the shooting.
This confluence of a school shooting and a tenure decision has brought up again the tired questions of allowing students to arm themselves on campus and the validity of tenure as an academic policy. Neither question has garnered that much attention this time around, but it irritates me to see them popping up like weeds yet again; it especially irritates me to see people using a tragedy like this one to push their pet political projects, literally only hours after the tragedy has occurred.
I predicted as soon as I saw the shooting that it wouldn’t take long for someone to make an argument that concealed weapons should be allowed on campus. I dread bringing this up again, because my last post on the subject, from almost two years ago, still brings out stupid right-wing commenters. Nevertheless, my prediction was correct: the first MSNBC article on the shooting quoted a student who complained that she was afraid to attend school because she couldn’t carry her gun (that article has since been revised and the quote removed). My response to this is the same as it was two years ago:
If there had only students had been allowed to carry guns on campus, the tragedy could have been prevented. This is an idiotic action-movie fantasy which is probably unique to the United States, where the tough-talkers have never actually faced an actual gun. If a shooter walks into a room without warning and opens fire with an automatic handgun, he will likely be able to empty his entire clip before anyone in the line of fire can effectively respond to the attack: A Glock, for instance, can fire 40 rounds per minute. There is also the concern that, for every incident which might be prevented by the presence of additional firearms, a half-dozen other incidents would be created by the presence of those weapons. As a university professor myself, I don’t want guns on campus: there are far too many students who, while not violent, might be tempted to use the presence of a weapon as an ill-advised attempt to intimidate the teacher. Even without weapons, threats against teachers are not uncommon.
School shootings are, despite their news coverage, very rare. If a student is so afraid of such an unlikely event that they need to carry a gun everywhere they go, they should have psychiatric care, not a gun.
Anticipating a very silly counterargument, does this mean I wouldn’t love to have a gun if someone burst into my office and started shooting? Undoubtedly. But I am mature enough to realize that the overall societal risk of prolific firearms everywhere outweighs the benefit it might have in certain special scenarios.
The other recurring argument is that tenure makes professors lazy and unaccountable. For instance, this comment on a post I will mention again in a moment:
Tenure is part of the feudalistic structure in academia, ostensibly there only to promote research, academic freedom, rigor and to protect the professor from reprisal from grading too toughly or spending time on unpopular curriculum and the like. It does some of these things, but what it does vastly more of is to produce aging, lazy, self-satisfied professors who won out in the tenure hustle, while in their prime. The real labor that benefits the college is then done by systematically tortured and underpaid adjuncts.
Emphasis mine. This is another one of those statements that I respond by demanding: show me the proof. I’ve heard lots of people argue that tenure produces lazy professors, but I never see any of these people produce evidence beyond vague unsubstantiated anecdotes. I, personally, have submitted all my tenure paperwork and look to be in very good shape, yet I’m actually working harder than ever. Among my research colleagues who have tenure, I am hard pressed to find one who is just coasting along. Are there “aging, lazy, self-satisfied” tenured professors out there? Almost certainly; however, there are also lazy, self-satisfied workers in every career.
The whole argument sounds to me like a hollow right-wing trope, based on the assumption that people only work hard when subjected to negative reinforcement, in particular the threat of being fired hanging over their head. Part of the purpose of the tenure process, in my experience, is to select those professors for tenure who have a love of their job and a drive to excel at it.
I always feel that people have a gross misunderstanding about tenure and what it actually entails. I thought I’d compile a list of common misunderstandings:
- Tenure means that you can’t get fired. Not really true. Quoting from the faculty handbook at my institution,
A Faculty Member, who is the beneficiary of institutional guarantees of Tenure, shall enjoy protection against unjust and arbitrary application of disciplinary penalties. During the period of such guarantees the Faculty Member may be discharged from employment, suspended, or demoted in rank only for reasons of:(a) incompetence, including significant, sustained unsatisfactory performance after the Faculty Member has been given an opportunity to remedy such performance and fails to do so within a reasonable time;
(b) neglect of duty, including sustained failure to meet assigned classes or to perform other significant faculty professional obligations; or
(c) misconduct of such a nature as to indicate that the individual is unfit to continue as a member of the Faculty, including violations of professional ethics, mistreatment of students or other employees, research misconduct, financial fraud, criminal or other illegal, inappropriate or unethical conduct. To justify serious disciplinary action, such misconduct should be either (i) sufficiently related to a Faculty Member’s academic responsibilities as to disqualify the individual from effective performance of University duties, or (ii) sufficiently serious as to adversely reflect upon the individual’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to be a Faculty Member.
In short, if you fail to perform your duties, you can be canned just like anybody in any other job. Tenure protects a professor from “unjust and arbitrary” disciplinary action.
- There’s no incentive to perform well once you get tenure. People who say this are again really assuming that only negative consequences are motivational, which I utterly disagree with. Within a university, there is usually the additional motivation of promotion to full professor (with an increase in salary), as well as ordinary raises that are performance-based, not to mention the possibility of various internal teaching awards. In the greater scientific community, there are many prestigious research awards that can be earned, as well as fellowships in professional organizations, and honorary degrees from other universities. (My former thesis advisor has enough honorary degrees to populate a physics department single-handedly.)
- Tenure is purely about academic freedom. The idea of academic freedom, being able to say what you like academically without worrying about retribution, is undoubtedly the most important role of tenure. However, it also provides freedom to speak out about internal university policies. In other words, it is protection against retribution from the administration of a university. Considering the academic faculty should be considered the guardians of the academic integrity of an institution, their ability to argue freely about university policy is hugely important.Tenure also allows faculty to pursue more long-term research goals without fear of dismissal. Many really important and transformative research projects are very complicated and could take years to bear significant fruit. Being subjected to yearly performance evaluations naturally forces faculty to take on smaller, less complicated research projects, as any tenure-track faculty member can attest to.
- If you don’t get tenure, your career is over. It is undeniable that a failure to get tenure is a traumatic, even devastating, experience; however, it is not necessarily the end of the world. I’ve personally known several people who have been denied tenure or reappointment (sometimes quite unfairly) and have landed on their feet at other institutions. One essential protection is that the tenure decision typically comes a year before the official end of a faculty member’s current contract, giving the person time to find other employment.
When people talk about abolishing tenure, I suspect they are really after the ability to control the speech of those “liberal” professors.
One of the most interesting questions raised in the aftermath of the shooting was by Abel Pharmboy at Terra Sigillata, who asked, “What role should personality or collegiality play in tenure decisions?“
The questions for you, dear academic reader are:
1. Do you think that lack of collegiality is grounds for denial of tenure for a candidate that otherwise meets the basic quantitative criteria outlined in university guidelines?
2. Do you feel that collegiality – or whatever you want to call it: teamwork, cooperation – should be an important factor in making academic tenure decisions?
In other words, “Should a person’s ability to get along with the department affect tenure decisions, or should it be based entirely on their research/teaching/service merits?” It is an interesting question for a few reasons, some of which are:
- There is an impression, popular amongst the public, that the most brilliant researchers have the worst social skills.
- “Collegiality” is an extremely difficult behavior to quantify.
It probably goes almost without saying that an employee in any business should get along with their coworkers. An unpleasant work environment can really wreck everyone’s productivity and make the overall workplace productivity even worse than if the offending employee weren’t there at all. (I’ve encountered many people over the years who, in essence, caused more problems than they solved.) However, the science myth goes, some researchers are so brilliant that their skills outweigh their negative social characteristics.
I’ve talked a bit about the myth of the abrasive genius in a past post, as has Chad at Uncertain Principles, and to a large extent, that is what it is — a myth. There were certainly some really obnoxious pricks in the scientific world who were also very smart, but there were also plenty of brilliant researchers who were perfectly charming and easy to get along with. Considering most universities these days are trying to grow a long-lasting research program, not just cultivate individual researchers, hiring people who are at least marginally sociable seems understandable. I suspect, though, that it is a matter of degrees — truly brilliant researchers can get away with a lot more attitude than the run-of-the-mill researchers. The problem is that plenty of the researchers with attitude are not quite as brilliant as they think they are. For my money, then, it turns out that some degree of collegiality is an important piece of any researcher’s overall worth. A great take on the importance of collegiality in tenure decisions can be found over at Janet’s blog.
The second point is a much more important one for universities — how does one quantify “collegiality”? To have a fair reappointment and tenure process, a researcher needs to have clear and measurable set of goals. I really have no idea how one would quantify “collegiality” such that it could be made clear to a junior faculty member. I could envision a general “collegiality” requirement for tenure becoming a back door by which tenure committees could dump people purely based on personal squabbles (not that it doesn’t happen already through other means).*
Regarding the Bishop case, I would ask people to resist the urge to speculate why she was denied tenure. It may have been for nefarious reasons, it may have been for lack of collegiality, or it may have been for other more quantifiable weaknesses in her tenure package. Speculating that the tenure committee was acting nefariously without any understanding of the real reasoning is unfair to them.
This post has been a bit meandering, but I wanted to address one final thing. Another commenter at Terra Sigillata speculated that Bishop acted the way she did because she was under the influence of antidepressants that basically made her “snap”. This is also a rather disgusting bit of unjustified speculation, especially to those of us who have been treated for depression. Even if Bishop was taking antidepressants, this proves nothing; I am forced to quote another two-year-old post of mine, in response to an argument that most mall shooters were on antidepressants:
This is a classic ‘correlation vs. causality’ logical flaw. Emotionally unstable people are more likely to be treated with medications, including antidepressants. Emotionally unstable people are also more likely to shoot up a mall. The common link between antidepressants and mall shootings is emotional instability. Again, independent of the effectiveness or lack thereof of antidepressants, I would expect mall shooters to be highly likely to be on them.
In short, in the aftermath of tragedy there are always people who are eager to shoehorn the event into their own personal worldview; don’t fall for such simplistic and dangerous thinking.
*It reminds me of another of my pet peeves — the requirement of many journals that papers represent “important” enough discoveries to merit publication. This is so subjective that you will often find referees simply stating, “This isn’t important,” without any justification, to reject papers they don’t like for unspeakable reasons.